WASHINGTON — An indigenous tribe in Ecuador that is protecting three defendants sued by the country's president for defamation says that the government flew helicopters into its territory in search of the three men on Friday.
A press release from the Kichwa people of the Sarayaku territory in the Amazon, situated in an eastern province of Ecuador, says that the army and police "launched an assault and harassment" in response to their decision to protect journalist Fernando Villavicencio, national assemblyman Clever Jimenez, and doctor and union leader Carlos Figueroa.
The tribe said that on Friday evening, helicopters landed in its territory, "creating panic in its people, in particular children."
The tribe announced this week that it was housing Villavicencio, Jimenez, and Figueroa, who have been convicted of defaming President Rafael Correa and sentenced to one and a half years in prison (Figueroa has been sentenced to six months). The three had asked the national assembly in 2011 to open an investigation on Correa's portrayal of the the large-scale police protests in 2010 as a coup attempt.
Villavicencio is a longtime opposition activist and journalist in Ecuador; police raided his house in December, taking computers full of documents related to his reporting. Villavicencio was recently in the United States, where he told BuzzFeed he was considering asking for asylum.
Ecuador has an increasingly restrictive media environment after the national assembly passed a strict communications law in 2013 that includes a provision against "media lynching," defined as "dissemination of information in a coordinated and reiterative
manner [...] with the purpose of discrediting or harming the reputation of a natural or legal person."
The Organization of American States' Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has requested precautionary measures on behalf of the three defendants: "the Commission believes that the information presented shows prima facie that the rights of Messrs. Fernando Alcibíades Villavicencio Valencia, Cléver Jiménez, and Carlos Eduardo Figueroa Figueroa are in a serious, urgent situation of irreparable harm," the IACHR wrote in its decision. It has demanded that Ecuador suspend its sentence.
Ecuador rejected the IACHR decision, writing in an official press release in March, "The Government regrets that the IACHR has requested interim measures without having successfully reviewed the information provided and does not consider all the necessary elements of judgment. Similarly, rejects the increasing politicization of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights which generates an unfortunate weakening of the system."
The helicopters' incursion into Sarayaku land on Friday "constitute a flagrant violation of the rights of the Sarayaku, and the judgment of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights," the tribe's press release states.
This is not the first time the Correa government has raided indigenous areas; in 2013, helicopters landed in the Yasuni jungle and took a young Taromemane girl who was being held in another tribe's village.
Attempts to reach Villavicencio were unsuccessful. Spokespeople for the Ecuadorian government did not immediately return requests for comment.